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Home » Daily Readings

Proclaiming the Unknown God (Acts 17)

Submitted by on Wednesday, 20 May 2009No Comment



NAB HomepageToday’s Readings

The present selection jumps over several episodes after the Jailer incident. Here are the episodes:
16:35-40 Paul and Silas freed by the magistrates
17:1-9 Preaching in Thessalonica
17:10-15 Preaching in Beroea

The evangelists had relative success in Thessalonica converting some Jews and God-fearers. But a group of Jews raised a riot, even calling to their side some ruffians, causing trouble for Jason, the evangelists’ host and some believers (17:7). So that night Paul and company were whisked to Beroea where they found a sympathetic group that carefully listened to the gospel preached and diligently studied Scriptures (17:11). But the mob from Thessalonica followed them there and soon Paul found himself on the way to the Athens while Silas and Timothy were left behind (17:13) It is at this point in the story where today’s reading begins (17:15).

Judging from the episodes that were glided over and the text that the liturgy presents for reading and meditation, the focus is on the gospel that is preached on the basis — not of Scriptures — but on the basis of nature. In the preceding sections, we see Paul and Silas entering Jewish synagogues and attracting to their side people who were already reading Scriptures. Paul’s job was to show them how Scriptures confirms Jesus as the Messiah. But at Athens, and especially at the Areopagus, Paul had to confront men who do not have regard for the Jewish Scriptures.1 The speech that Paul gives here has become a classic in Christian apologetics.

First, Paul begins with the fact of the piety of the Athenians as expressed in the many monuments they have dedicated to the gods to the point that there is even one for “the Unknown God” which the Athenians recognized but have not come to know. Paul presents himself as one who introduces this unknown god to the Athenians. In his argument, Paul makes use of literature that his audience were familiar with and he does not quote from Jewish Scriptures2. The argument from this Unknown God “in whom we live and move and have our being” is linked to the Resurrection in these words

God has overlooked the times of ignorance,
but now he demands that all people everywhere repent
because he has established a day
on which he will ‘judge the world with justice’
through a man he has appointed, and he has provided confirmation for all
by raising him from the dead.”

The topic of the resurrection is Jewish; the philosophical mind-set of those present would have found it incomprehensible since they thought that death is liberation from a body that holds the soul — the essence of man — in prison. The dead returning to life would be as illogical as a freed man returning to the status of a slave. And so the general reaction was negative. Paul should have anticipated the reaction though — he was born in Tarsus, known for having produced a culture that at one time rivalled that of Athens and Alexandria. Was Paul imprudent in bringing up the topic of the resurrection before a people that he knew would frown at it? I think not. There are non-negotiables in the gospel that Paul preached, and the resurrection is a sine qua non. An interesting point in this speech is that judgment is proclaimed universal, that is, no longer something arising from Jewish consciousness alone.

The reaction of the crowd that listened to Paul can be divided into three types: (a) those who scoffed (b) those who wanted a second hearing (c) those who believed. Group (b) and (c) are positive reactions.

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  1. The Athenians have had amicable relations with the Jews as this article would show. []
  2. One of the poets Paul cites is Aratus, from III BC []

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